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Palestine and the Politics of Guilt by Association
Every day I get letters asking me why I have remained an adviser to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., when he holds such extreme, one-sided views on Israel and Palestine.
Some think that, perhaps, because I am Jewish I am unwilling to see that Israel is reenacting a dilute version of its people’s own historical trauma. Others know that I am well aware of the oppression of the Palestinians, and think I have simply compromised my integrity.
The latter are half right. Through my reading of history and my friendships with both Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, I am indeed well aware of the desperate plight of the Palestinian people after decades of oppression by the immeasurably more powerful and increasingly theocratic state of Israel. The expulsions, the sabotage of peace, the land grabs, the incarceration, intimidation, and torture of activists, the bulldozing of houses, the maiming of unarmed protesters, the violation of human rights, the lopsided “wars” in which hundreds of Palestinians are killed for each Israeli, the assassinations, and the propaganda and lies that hold it all together are well known to me.
True, Israel is far from being the most despotic state in the region. The treatment of dissidents and religious minorities in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia is much worse. There is a lot to admire about Israel. For its Jewish majority at least, it is (or has been) a robust democracy, with a large middle class and impressive achievements in science, technology, and the arts. Similar might have been said about the USA during Jim Crow. Aside from the shameful exclusion of African-Americans and Native Americans, we too were a robust democracy, a society far freer and healthier than that of the Soviet Union. But that did not excuse the systemic violation of minorities’ human rights.
My disagreement with RfK Jr. on the Palestine issue is profound. Why would I advise someone who has such troubling views? A lot of people have demanded that I "distance myself" from him. I have to admit, it is tempting. I could make a righteous declaration and walk away smelling like a rose. My readers would applaud my principled stand. The hemorrhaging of my subscribers would cease, and I would regain credibility in their eyes.
But in my heart I would know that I had taken no principled stand, but had put acceptance and approval and audience retention first, above the mission that brought me to the campaign in the first place. I came into it with the hope that it could be a turning point toward national and global healing. My actual "principled stand" is to stick with the campaign — regardless of the damage to my reputation — for as long as that hope remains alive within me and I am contributing positively towards it.
What would “dissociating myself” actually serve? One might argue that my presence on the campaign is an implicit endorsement of Kennedy’s Israel position, and by extension, all his positions. But tell me — do you refuse to associate with people who don’t agree with your every opinion? Does association mean endorsement? Is this how we are to change the world — to divide into opinion tribes that demand complete conformity on pain of expulsion?
Something ugly moves beneath the surface of this politics of association. It’s the same dehumanization of the out-group that powers all the noxious “isms” and “phobias” that take form as atrocity. Racism, nationalism, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism… all of these divide humanity into two subsets: the fully human, and the less than fully human. In politics, likewise, it is always the other side who are deplorable, inexcusable, not in full possession of the qualities of a human being. Thus we tend to paint political opponents in monstrous tones. Biden, Trump, Kennedy are variously portrayed by their enemies as some version of socially unacceptable: narcissist, traitor, child molester, bigot, conspiracy theorist.
The higher purpose of political involvement is not to valorize oneself as a member of Team Good. When that motive infiltrates a political movement, its members become incapable of self-reflection. They cannot admit they were wrong about anything, when in-group membership depends on holding and displaying the group’s opinions. Wrong equals bad and disagreement equals betrayal.
None of this means that the Palestine issue is unimportant compared to the issues that drew me into the campaign. Here is an argument I do not accept, but I will make it anyway in order to highlight an alternative:
The Israel/Palestine issue is not of primary importance. Israel plus East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank together have a population of just 15 million – too small to justify the inordinate attention events there receive. It is regrettable that Mr. Kennedy has sided with the oppressor, but this issue pales in comparison to the catastrophic US policies elsewhere in the world that implicate hundreds of times more people, which he aims to reverse. Most alarming is the neocon-hatched project of maximum confrontation with Russia and China designed to provoke wars to maintain our dominance in a “New American Century.” The continually escalating provocation of Russia and China is insane. If you want to get really alarmed, read some of the foreign policy establishment propaganda about winning nuclear wars (e.g. The U.S. Should Show It Can Win a Nuclear War – Wall Street Journal). Israel/Palestine pales in comparison to this issue.
I do not believe this argument. Here’s why: This region that many call the Holy Land looms large on the political and psychic landscape. An irrational yet compelling logic says that there will be no true peace anywhere if there cannot be peace in the Holy Land. And conversely, if there were peace between the Arabs and the Jews in Palestine, no one anywhere would be able to say that peace is impossible for them too. Peace, reconciliation, and healing in the Holy Land would ripple out into the world. This speck of land in westmost Asia is a planetary fulcrum.
The main Kennedy campaign slogan is Heal the Divide. If the divide in the Holy Land can be healed, so it can be in all lands.
I remain an adviser to the campaign not because I’m willing to swallow the Palestine disagreement for a greater cause, but because of certain personal qualities I have seen in Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that give me confidence that he will change his mind. First is humility, borne of his history of addiction and recovery that has taught him that he is no better nor worse than any other man. With humility comes a willingness to listen and cling less tightly to being right. Second is compassion: he is a very kind man who cares especially for those who hae been left out. Third is sympathy for the underdog. He knows firsthand how dominant powers can distort the truth, turn blame onto victims, make criminals out of heros, and marginalize voices of protest. It is only a matter of time, I believe, before he recognizes that pattern in israel’s relations with the Palestinians.
I am not merely passively awaiting such a moment. I am actively seeking to create its conditions. My goal though is not actually that he change his opinions into alignment with my own. It is that he listen to the best of what all sides have to offer. He is already familiar with the hardline “pro-Israel” side.1 I envision a listen-and-learning session where he sits with scholarly critics of Israel, Palestinian peace acvitists, Israeli peace activists, and maybe a peace rabbi, absorbing their views and experiences. What I ask for is not a change of opinion, it is a full open-minded listening to all sides. That is the mark of a true leader.
I joined the campaign because of the strong resonance and welcome my views met in the candidate and the core team. I spoke on healing the divide, on truth and transparency, on peace, and on reversing the slide toward totalitarianism. I spoke on interconnection, community, and the living planet paradigm. I spoke on stirring an authentic populism. I spoke on reconnecting with a different America, “the America that almost was and yet may be.” What would our country be now if, from the pinnacle of our prestige and power in the early 1960s, we’d pursued a path of peace instead of world military domination? It is never too late to take up that path. I continue to stand for all this and to infuse it into the DNA of the campaign every chance I get. Often I am awkward and ineffective in doing so. I’ve never been part of a big organization before. But I would not be able to do it at all if these ideals did not have strong resonance among the core team. It is my job to hold those ideals against the pressures of the existing political culture and the reflexes of conventional campaign combat.
Now let me describe the vision I have received for peace in the Mideast. True peace is not just the absence of conflict. I see a breathtaking possibility of real brotherhood in the region, where Arabs and Israelis, Shia and Sunni, Jews and Muslims, Christians, Sufis, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, and every other faith and sect live in mutual respect, even mutual affection, tending together the land they call holy. To attain this possibility would require both vision and will, since all parties are at this point deeply inebriated in stories of their own righteousness. It will require the full deployment of the most advanced technologies of peace, such as the truth & reconciliation processes pioneered in South Africa and Rwanda. It will require courage and leadership, as peace-building always starts with an act of trust. Muslim leaders throughout the region will make statements of welcome to the Jews. “You are welcome to abide in the region of your ancestors. You are welcome in Palestine and in our own countries as well. We apologize for all the ways we have contributed to your persecution and stoked hatred against you.” And Jewish leaders will make statements of welcome to the Palestinians to live and travel freely throughout the lands of Israel, and apologize for the decades of expulsion and oppression. Israel will throw open the doors of welcome to Muslim pilgrims to the holy sites of Jerusalem, where they will be treated with generosity and escorted by phalanxes of Jewish peace activists. Israel and the Palestinian territories will be unified in a secular state where continuing miracles of peace and forgiveness radiate outward, putting to shame anyone still pursuing sectarian fighting. The security of Israel will no longer even be a question. It won’t need to be enforced with walls and fences, drones and assassinations, tanks and nuclear weapons. The Holy Land will be an epicenter of peace consciousness—the fulfillment of its destiny.
I hope that amid your discomfort at reading something so hopelessly idealistic and, in its naivete, so inappropriate in political discourse, you will recognize a thread of authentic possibility. In some realm of the archetypes, this is indeed the future of the Holy Land. It is not impossible. It is real. In some sense it already exists. Therefore, it can be a lodestar to guide policy.
We can also ask, Who does this possibility call to us to be? What could we let go of, in order to bring word and deed into alignment with it?
If I may offer a suggestion, perhaps what we need to let go of is the very tribalism that expresses itself in the form of guilt-by-association. Let’s stop scrutinizing every action through the lens of, “Whose side are you on? Which side does it serve? Are you one of us, or one of them?” That’s the attitude that is tearing our country apart. That’s the attitude that’s tearing the world apart. Who are the bad guys in the story? “Oh my God, I thought Charles was one of the good guys, but now I see he is one of the bad guys because Kennedy is a bad guy. I’d better unsubscribe, otherwise, by taint of association, I too will be a bad guy.”
There are other ways to make change in the world besides “standing with” and “standing against.”
I am fond of saying that the story we hold about someone invites them to act accordingly. Stories create roles. Be wary of stories that hold anyone as irredeemable. Be especially wary of holding whole groups that way. The world is ready for a new drama to replace the old plot line of us versus them.
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Help, I’m an ant trapped in Charles’ keyboard. This is the only way I can communicate with the outside world.
I put “pro-Israel” in quotes because the right-wing policies of expansionism and repression ultimately will harm the people of Israel too.